Inside Pulse DVD Review – The Essential Steve McQueen Collection


Here is another film collection released by Warner Bros. and once again the studio delivers. Warner Bros. has earned a great reputation by presenting its classic titles in special edition form. Films such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca are good examples. Well, get the chalk and add The Essential Steve McQueen Collection to the list. For this seven-disc set you get six movies – Never So Few (1959), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973) and Tom Horn (1980) – and loads of bonus information. Special features include commentaries, trailers, vintage featurettes, and two feature-length documentaries – Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool and The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Making.

Steve McQueen is one cool cat. But, for the life of me, I’ll never understand how people can confuse him with Paul Newman. Sure, they both have crystal blue eyes and a similar physique, but that’s where the comparisons end. No way you would mistake McQueen as Cool Hand Luke. Nor would you picture Newman as the Cincinnati Kid.

But I digress. Steve McQueen walked onto the scene in 1956 with a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me where he rubbed shoulders with Paul Newman. Then in 1958 he scored his first hit in the cult cinema classic The Blob. Now McQueen had the opportunity to take a percentage of the grosses, but he declined. Instead, he wanted the 25-hundred dollars offered. With the percentage, though, McQueen could have netted a cool million. Live and learn. Looking for work, he took a role on Wanted: Dead or Alive, a televised western series. The show was an overnight success. Soon Hollywood would beckon McQueen to return to the world of film. And he did. The result: oh, just some movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt, and The Getaway. No big whoop. OK, that was a joke.

Seriously, though, the guy is quite a presence on screen. And Steve McQueen represented a new type of movie star – an actor who played by his own rules and lived by his own moral code. Hmmm, sounds a lot like Tom Cruise, nowadays.

The movies:

What are they about?

For Never So Few, Steve McQueen was a young star in his first big-budget film. He plays Bill Ringa, one of the O.S.S. combatants harassing the enemy in World War II. The star of the film, Frank Sinatra, plays Captain Tom Reynolds, leads the fighters and risks a court martial while doing so. Jungle combat becomes a grind and soon thereafter Chinese rebels cross into Burma and start killing American soldiers. What’s interesting about this film, is that Sinatra told director John Sturges to give the newcomer the “good” camera angles. Sturges obliged and soon newspaper critics were clamoring that “a star is a born in Never So Few.” Little did Sinatra know that McQueen would be getting the roles he should have been offered.

Papillon is a great precursor for The Shawshank Redemption. Both feature protagonists who were wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to a life in prison. But unlike Stephen King’s short story adaptation, Papillon is a true story. Steve McQueen portrays Henri Charriere, one of the few persons who successfully escaped the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. Under the direction of Franklin J. Schaffner (Academy Award winner for Patton), McQueen is Papillon (which means butterfly), a man who willed himself to freedom. Much to the delight of Andy Dufrense, I bet.

Tom Horn was McQueen’s second-to-last film, but it was probably his best western. Films like The Magnificent Seven presented him as a dirty pretty boy. With this film he is older, more stoic. He is Tom Horn, an enforcer in the Old West. Shot on location in sunny Arizona, Horn is hired by cattle ranchers to end the violence on the open range. He does so by serving up some of his own.

Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway is an important film for a number of reasons. One, it proved that there was life for Peckinpah after The Wild Bunch. Two, the film had a bunch of paparazzi milling around the set. The reason, the affair Ali MacGraw – then married to Paramount Pictures executive Robert Evans – was having with co-star Steve McQueen. This topic is more thoroughly discussed in the Evans autobiography and documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. Compared to recent caper films, The Getaway doesn’t play for laughs. It takes the source material, Jim Thompson’s novel, seriously. The film is a thriller with all sorts of twists and turns and backhand slaps. From its open inside the walls of Huntsville State Prison to the climax at the El Paso border, Peckinpah crafts an intensely character-driven action yarn with assistance from Walter Hill’s screenplay and the two leading lovebirds.

Probably the most recognizable film in this collection, but hardly the best, is Bullitt. Don’t get me wrong, the film has its moments. The on-location shooting in San Francisco gives it a real authentic view of city life. The editing is a nice touch, too. The car chase scene alone shows you why Bullitt won the Oscar statute for Best Editing. To this day it remains one of the best car chases on celluloid. But it is that sequence that eclipses the entire film. You know things are bad when some of the actors didn’t even understand the script. Can’t say that I blame them. While McQueen’s blue turtleneck and driving techniques try to keep the movie afloat, from time to time I wondered if the car chase was Bullitt‘s saving grace. Sadly, it was.

With the popularity of poker today, it’s no wonder why poker enthusiasts are discovering The Cincinnati Kid for the very first time. As the title character, Steve McQueen practices his skill in the seedy gin joints and lean-tos of New Orleans. Looking to make a small fortune for himself he challenges the “Man” Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) to a game of five-card stud. With each turn of the card director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) ratchets up the suspense factor. It also helps when you have Edward G. Robinson’s classic line, “You’re good kid. But as long as I’m around, you’re second best.”

Adding to the film is the great supporting talent, which includes Ann-Margaret, Karl Malden, Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld. Definitely a movie where the climax is worth an ante up.

Score: 8/10

The DVD Collection:

VIDEO: How does it look?

Released over a twenty-year period, the six films have a good video quality to them. Only the two-disc special edition has a new digital transfer, though. So, as expected, the rest have dirt on the print and graininess interspersed. Be grateful that Warner Bros. decided to include The Cincinnati Kid into the mix. Each film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and are enhanced for 16 x 9 television sets.

Score: 7.5/10

AUDIO: How does it sound?

Most of the included titles have a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Those that don’t have their original 2.0 mono track. Bullitt, with its new picture and sound, looks good and sounds great. An audio delight when listening to the car chase in the comfort of your own home. The films are presented with optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Alternate French language tracks can be found on each film, as well.

Score: 8/10

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentaries, two great documentaries, and vintage featurettes!!!

Never before have I watched a DVD where the extras were superior to the film. Well, prepare to be amazed. The documentaries included on the Bullitt two-disc set are better than the film. Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool is an 87-minute program that explores the King of Cool in great detail. Written, produced, and directed by Mimi Friedman, the documentary chronicles the actor’s life; from the day his mother abandoned him at a farmhouse to McQueen becoming a major player in Hollywood. Friedman uses vintage photos of Steve McQueen living life, getting dirty and riding motorcycles. Also included in the documentary are comments by the likes of writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, Martin Landau, Robert Vaughn, his ex-wife Neile Adams and his son Chad.

The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing is another documentary and in many ways it is better than The Essence of Cool. This 99-minute program could have been aptly titled: Everything You Wanted to Know About Editing but Were Afraid to Ask. OK, maybe the extra isn’t that instructional, but it has a great amount of information on the subject. The editor was once a “silent voice” in Hollywood. Over the years editors have gained prominence in the movie industry and have become the director’s greatest asset as a result. Narrated by Kathy Bates, the documentary shows clips from classic films like Battleship Potemkin and new releases The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Also included are observations by directors Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, among others, and editors such as Sally Menke (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) and Kevin Tent (Sideways, Election).

Besides these two programs, the set sports a featurette and an audio commentary. Bullitt: Steve McQueen’s Commitment to Reality is a vintage press kit feature created while the film was in production. The 10-minute program is a quick look at the San Francisco locations used while filming.

Director Peter Yates is on the microphone for the commentary track. Listening to his comments during the car chase you get a greater sense of the effort it took to create. Numerous cameras, fifty-plus production workers, and eight stunt drivers. According to Yates, originally there wasn’t supposed to be a chase. It wasn’t included in the script. But at the behest of the film’s producer Phillip D’Antoni the scene was added. Good call.

Many regard The Cincinnati Kid as the best poker film of all-time. They may be right. The disc includes a commentary by director Norman Jewison, a screen-specific commentary with the hosts of Celebrity Poker Showdown, Phil Gordon and Dave Foley, and a featurette on the art of dealing cards.

Cincinnati was Jewison’s first dramatic work so it’s no wonder he considers it his “ugly duckling.” The film wasn’t a huge success, but the film gained in popularity. Norman Jewison is good to listen to, but unfortunately the screen-specific commentary is not. Dave Foley’s quips may work for his Bravo show, but they don’t work for this film. Too bad they couldn’t get James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street. That would have been interesting.

The Cincinnati Kid: Plays According to Hoyle may be a short featurette – it’s only six minutes – but it acts as a beginner’s course of how to cheat while dealing cards. How inspiring.

On The Getaway you get to hear a virtual commentary with Sam Peckinpah, Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. By “virtual” Warner Bros. means, “really cool, ingenious feature that splices audio clips together.” It only plays for the first 12 minutes of the film, but to have the opportunity to hear these three discuss the picture is quite a treat.

The other audio commentary was recorded by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. Briefly listening to the commentary, one of the participants mentions that Steve McQueen “doesn’t have to say anything. You know what’s going on in his head just by looking at him.” Sadly, you don’t see that with many actors today. So instead of an actor hastily grabbing a gun from a Army ranger, for example, the actor would yell, “GIVE ME YOUR WEAPON, NOW!!!”

The last vintage featurette is found on the Papillon disc. The Magnificent Rebel is a 12-minute piece on the film’s location in Jamaica. The prison set was reconstructed from the original blueprints. The great thing about this feature is that Henri Charriere recounts his experiences inside the prison walls.

With each disc you can also watch the film’s theatrical trailer. Notice the methodology of how the films were marketed then to those that invade our movie theaters today.

Score: 8/10